Denying experience in intra-cultural communication—S.N. Balagangadhara

1. Let us begin with one of the minimal conditions for inter-cultural (verbal) communication. And that is: people should be able to have conversations with each other. It is legitimate to claim that one does not need to know what a ‘conversation’ is in order to have a conversation. Therefore, whatever else we may want to say, it would be very difficult to maintain that there is no conversation in other cultures. Equally difficult would it be to hold that some cultures are inferior to others regarding their practice of conversational activity. In other words, our intuitions do not allow us to assert either a factual or a normative claim, which would either deny the existence of conversation in other cultures or suggest that members from some cultures are incompetent conversationalists.

2. The western culture has produced several theories about and several theorists of conversation. These theories are the results of research into the nature of conversation. Such theories shed light on the nature and properties of conversation. Some of the famous maxims of conversation are known (and practiced?) by many of us. Strange though this suggestion might sound, we have learnt such maxims in the West after we left India. As examples, consider the following two maxims: ‘Be relevant’ (or ‘be to the point’) and ‘Be brief’. [Some of us are probably under the impression that these ‘maxims’ of conversation are ‘efficient’ or ‘business-like’ and that they help us ‘get on’ with our lives better. I will come back to this point later.]

3. Whatever these theories do or do not, they should at least help us affirm the points made in the first paragraph. In order to see how our theories of conversation help us relate to them, let me introduce the following scenarios set in the Asian continent. (All of them true, all narrated to me by the Europeans and a few any numbers of times. That is why I have structured the scenarios the way I have.).

3.1. As a white man and foreigner, you are a teacher in an English class in China. All of a sudden, one fine day, the Chinese director of the school drops in during the afternoon and requests to speak to you. After nearly a quarter of an hour, during which time the director has praised your work and qualities sky high, and just when you thought that he was coming to the real point of his visit he politely takes leave. You know that what he said was not ‘what he came to say’; nevertheless, you also realize that ‘something’ has been said. (This is the experience of an American, who suffered a nervous breakdown after living for about two years in China under these conditions.)

3.2. As a white man and foreigner, you are travelling somewhere in Asia (say, Thailand). Intending to take the public transport, you go to a bus stop and enquire a native passer-by when the next bus is due. The native consults his wristwatch, assures you that you could expect it any minute and moves along. An hour and a half later, while still waiting for the same bus, you spy the same native returning from his errand. Furious, you collar him and ask him the same question. Though a bit surprised at your rage, when the native gives the same answer, you realize that you have been had: that guy had no more clue about the bus timings than you had!

3.3. As a white man and foreigner, you are travelling on a train in India. Seated next to you is a Brahmin, eager to strike up a conversation and impress you with his learning. Your sensibility is shocked by the poverty in India, and by the existence of ‘untouchability’ in that culture. Outraged and incensed by the indifference that Indians show to poverty and suffering around them, you quiz this Brahmin about why he is unmoved. The Brahmin assures you with great solemnity that most of the ‘beggars’ you have seen are really no beggars at all, but, to the contrary, rather wealthy. Many, in fact, are wealthier than either of you. In support of this fact, the Brahmin tells you a tale (an anecdote) about some beggars who turned about to be the greedy rich in disguise! Regarding the lot of those beggars who are not cheaters, he merely shrugs his shoulders and says that it is their karma. You are utterly shocked by both the flimsiness of his ‘explanation’ and by the total lack of humanity in that Brahmin. Both of you know that the ‘anecdote’ was a figment of his imagination.

Each of the three scenarios is a part of our folklore: almost each traveler and tourist who has been to Asia will have some such tale to tell.

4. There will not be much of a controversy, if we identify all three as conversations. That is to say, two or more people are involved; there was some kind of a question and answer, some exchange of information in some context or the other. We do not suppose that one needs to be knowledgeable about conversation theory in order to identify that a conversation has taken place. And yet, were we to look at some of the existing theories about what conversation is, we are led to some nontrivial and startling conclusions: it would appear either that there has been no conversation at all or that in each of them some or other ‘maxim’ has been violated.

5. In and of itself, this piece of knowledge is not startling. But it does become so when we take into account that these types of conversation are not exceptions but standards, and that they all are examples from non-western cultures!

In the first case, for example, the Chinese director was neither brief nor relevant; in the second, the native was violating the ‘cooperation principle’ and was lying; in the third the same holds true as well.

6. Our theories of conversation, then, generate the conclusions that other cultures either do not know how to have a conversation or that they always violate the norms of conversation or, even more crudely put, most of the time only westerners are competent conversationalists. This is a logical possibility, to be sure; but there is something utterly implausible about such conclusions. Our conversational ‘theories’ generate such conclusions because of some assumptions they make. Let me try and identify just three of them.

7. The first assumption: Common to all (or nearly all) theories of conversation is the assumption that conversational relations (like, say, that of ‘relevance’) hold between beliefs. (I do not mean religious beliefs, but beliefs of any kind.) That is to say, the semantic relations between propositions constitute the main area of inquiry. (Some statement A is relevant to some statement B: therefore, ‘relevance’ has to do with the meaning of the statements A and B.)

The second assumption: Theories of conversation do not refer to the fact that it is people who indulge in conversation; yet, one intuitively thinks that it is human beings who indulge in conversations. These two ideas are not (necessarily) opposed to each other. That is, the distance between the theories and our intuitions is bridged (often) by a metaphysical assumption, which is highly culture specific: only human beings have beliefs. Or, at least: human beings embody beliefs.

The third assumption: With respect to this property of embodying beliefs, there is a third assumption about the nature of persons. This says that humans are equal with respect to this property.

8. The first assumption allows you to ‘discover’ relations between beliefs; the second and the third assumptions enable you to develop a general theory of what it is to have a conversation. If this caricature is even approximately true, we can raise the question now: What if there exist cultures and societies, where none of the above assumptions are true? That is, what if there are cultures and societies, which do not make this kind of a distinction between human beings and the rest of nature; to whom the ‘observational’ term, viz., human beings turns out to be a very ‘theoretical’ term? Clearly, in such cases, our theories of conversation break down. By the same token, they cease being universal in the sense of being theories of human communication.

9. What I would like to propose is that this is indeed the case: in each of the scenarios sketched above, what we see is the breakdown of our theories of conversation. In these cultures, the kind of conversation held depends on exactly who the participants are; the ‘relevant’ answer to a question depends upon just who is asking the question and who is doing the answering. What is a relevant answer to a question in one conversation need not be a relevant answer to the same question in another conversation.

10. The above considerations are enough for me to raise two general points: one about us and the other about inter-cultural communication. Let me begin with the first. Why do we Indians, so proudly at times, accept ideas from conversation theories (even if we do not know where they come from) with so little reflection? In fact, I have had people preaching to me that we Indians are a ‘garrulous’ lot and that we better learn from the western culture the virtues of being relevant, brief and to the point. Why so little understanding of the issues involved? Why the urge not to think our own experiences through and look at our own inheritance and culture? I do not want to praise the Indian culture as the best form of life; but I do want to say that it is our form of life and just as ‘valid’ as any other form of life. Let us learn all we want to and can from the West: I have learnt a great deal already and continue to do so. But that is possible only if we do not denigrate either of the two cultures. (This is a huge issue, and I hope to return to this someday.) Personally, I am only glad that I have learnt to know them both so intimately.

11. If we continue along the lines of the thoughts sketched above, we see that the theorists of inter-cultural communication have not even begun to suspect the kind of problems involved in thinking about the theme. No wonder the problems of inter-cultural communication, instead of going away, return with a vengeance. Because, as the earlier points will have hinted at, the entire discussion is not about inter-cultural communication at all but about intra-cultural communication. Better put, the whole issue is about the monologue the western culture has within itself and other cultures have to merely play their scripted role. How should different cultures speak both to the West and to each other within the framework of the western culture? Obviously, this is not merely a cultural, political or an economic question but one that arises within the theories of conversation!

12. In other words, the “denial of our experience” takes place in more forms and fashions than we understand. While we protest about it in one area, we acquiesce to it in another. This is something we need to keep in mind. Besides, what is ‘wordiness’ between Indians; there is no need to be either brief or to the point! Right?